Selecting Artifacts to Accompany “I Want the Wide American Earth”

So many artifacts to choose from!

One of our upcoming exhibitions, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, takes a sweeping look at how Asian Pacific Americans have shaped and been shaped by the course of our nation’s history through 30 banners of poignant text, photographs, and art.

To put a personal touch from JANM on the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, we chose to complement the banners with some items from the Museum’s extensive collections. Since we have over 60,000 unique artifacts, documents, and photos in our permanent collection, it was a tough choice!

As a summer intern, I was given the (amazing!) opportunity to select these artifacts. There were several qualifiers—the artifacts would have to be both relevant to its banner’s content and interesting, whether visually or content-wise. My first step was to read through the exhibition text to get a better sense of the exhibition as a whole, then to list them out along with a brief summary and relevant information (keywords, dates, people, etc.—anything that might help narrow down artifacts). I sent the document to our Collections Associate, who searched the collections database and returned a pretty extensive list of potential artifacts. From there, it was a matter of selecting one or two for each banner and then pulling them to take a look. We also collaborated with the Riverside Metropolitan Museum to loan a few items from their historic Chinatown collections.

I don’t want to give away too much (you’ll have to come to the show to see all of the artifacts), but you’ll be able to see a really striking article written in the 1940s by the chairman of the California Joint Immigration Committee. The article, after being submitted to a national magazine, was passed around by the Japanese American Citizens League’s Equality Committee as a reminder of the challenges faced.

What I find interesting about the article is the blatantly offensive language—featuring lines such as “Because of their unassimilability and the impossibility of competing with them due to their low standards of living, Japanese immigrants have never really been welcome in the United States.” Of course I was previously aware of such anti-Japanese sentiment (how could I not, after touring Common Ground: The Heart of Community), but seeing it literally spelled out for me made an abstract concept truly hit home.

See this artifact and more in I Want the Wide American Earth from September 14 ‐ October 27, 2013! Check the exhibition page for more details.

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